SURPRISE, Ariz.— James Shields didn't have to do it.
He didn't think much of it when he did, either.
But with the simple of act of hanging out on the bench to watch Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar take their turn on the mound when he could have been doing anything else, the Royals' new ace sent a message that resounded quite loudly in a young clubhouse starved for winning.
"It showed he's a leader," manager Ned Yost said.
The kind of leader the Royals were hoping he'd be when they acquired Shields and fellow right-hander Wade Davis in a blockbuster deal last December, which sent top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi along with two other minor leaguers to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kansas City has retooled its lineup over the past couple years, relying on a farm system that has become one of the best in baseball. But a blight of pitching prospects has prevented the club from taking the final step toward competing for its first division title in nearly 30 years.
That's why general manager Dayton Moore made the bold move to acquire Shields, a former All-Star, even at the cost of losing Myers, the minor-league player of the year last season.
"We've got to redirect the course of this organization," Moore said, "and the only way to do it is if your most talented players, your best players, are the ones who care the most and compete the most. We knew James Shields was going to be our best pitcher, and we need him to be a guy who is going to care and compete."
He showed that he's willing to be that guy last Wednesday against Milwaukee.
When the Royals are playing National League teams, their starting pitchers aren't required to go down and sit on the bench. But when Yost gazed looked over there before the first pitch, Shields and Davis had already claimed seats to watch Chen and Hochevar make their spring debuts.
"They were the only two starters out here," Yost said. "It's little things like that people don't really think about, but they do. They put the thought into it."
Shields seemed surprised that anybody would notice where he was sitting on an off day, but the truth is that eyes will be following him everywhere he goes this season.
"I mean, I'm really new here, and those guys pitched and me and Wade wanted to go out and watch them," he said demurely. "It gets us fired up a little bit. We want to get going, get out there and do our thing. You see other starters succeed, that's what makes us go."
Shields finally got his turn on the mound a couple days later, throwing a perfect inning in his spring training debut that was so efficient that he headed out to the bullpen afterward so he could squeeze in a few more pitches.
It was the kind of outing the Royals are hoping for, and fans are expecting, out of someone who earned the nickname "Big Game James" in the minors — an ultra-competitive pitcher who went 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA last year, led the majors with 11 complete games the year before, and has thrown at least 200 innings each of the past six seasons.
Even his teammates are expecting greatness out of a pitcher who's shown flashes of it.
"Shields is going to lead us to the promised land," said third baseman Mike Moustakas. "He's going to show us the way, how things are supposed to be done. We're going to hop on his back."
All of this may seem like a lot of pressure for any one person to carry, especially when you consider Kansas City has had one winning seasons since 1994. But the position Shields finds himself in this season isn't all that different from the way things were early in his career in Tampa Bay.
The Rays lost more than 100 games his first season, and fared little better the next year. But by his third season as a starter, Shields had become the ace for a young and energetic group that managed to upstage the Red Sox and Yankees and reach the World Series.
Shields was 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA that season.
"You have to be a certain type of individual to be a leader," Yost said. "Not everybody is born to be a leader. But he definitely was. He not only comes to it naturally, he works at it, too. He sits and thinks about ways to make his teammates better, and that's a very important quality."
Given all that, perhaps it's not so surprising that Shields was watching from the bench last week on a day he wasn't scheduled to pitch, rooting on a couple pitchers competing for a job.
In fact, seems as if it'd be more surprising if he wasn't.
"Here in spring training, you really start to create that good chemistry with players, and really just bond as a team," Shields said, "because if you try to do it midseason, it's a little too late. It might be a little faked, you know what I mean? This is our time to work on being together and getting our work done, and that's what I'm here to do."